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PISA 2009: It's not about the Leaning Tower...
by Melinda Cook, Director of Curriculum

A few years ago I was traveling in Italy, and as part of my trip, I arranged a day in Pisa to see the famous Leaning Tower. Walking through the town toward the Tower was a disconcerting experience. As I approached it, I quickly learned that focusing on the Tower made me slightly dizzy. Like tens of thousands of other tourists, I dutifully had my picture taken with the Tower in the background. But, probably like tens of thousands of others, I then thought, "Now what?" It seemed a bit anticlimactic: It was a tower, built on a faulty foundation.

A few days ago I spent two days in meetings with Department officials, representatives from Statistics Canada, the Council of Ministers of Education Canada, and your newly-assigned school and district PISA coordinators. PISA 2009 is not about the Tower; it is about the test.

The OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) began PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) in 2000. A PISA test is administered to a random sample of 15-year-olds in participating countries every three years. According to the OECD, the tests are designed to assess reading, mathematical, and scientific literacy of students as they approach the end of their compulsory education. In 2000 the focus was on literacy, in 2003 on mathematics, and in 2006 the focus was on science. In 2009 the focus will once again be literacy.

The OECD has met with great success with this initiative. In 2000, 32 countries participated. In 2009, sixty-nine countries are expected to participate. Thousands of documents have been produced based on the results of the PISA tests. A google search of the terms OECD and PISA offered 178, 000 hits. The OECD has generated tremendous press with this initiative - as have governments in the participating jurisdictions.

Here in New Brunswick, a major election platform was built upon our PISA results. It is my understanding that the catchphrase "from worst to first" was based on PISA data that showed New Brunswick in or near last place among the ten Canadian provinces. In 2006, on the science portion of the assessment, Canada placed third among the 57 participating countries. Within Canada, of the 10 provinces participating, New Brunswick placed tenth. Such demoralizing data begs the question, "Now what?" In order to provide an answer, I'll refer quickly back to Pisa, Italy.

Since seeing the Tower was not enough, I continued my exploration of the town of Pisa. Immediately behind the Tower I found a church and baptistery. The lamps hanging in the church are purported to be those that inspired Galileo to develop the Law of the Pendulum. As a physics teacher, I was thrilled to spend precious minutes sitting in the church, watching those lamps swing. In the baptistery, the acoustics were such that a series of musical notes echoed throughout the building forming a sound of such haunting beauty and complexity that many in our group were moved to tears.

I believe the lesson I learned in Pisa, Italy applies to the PISA test. It is important to keep looking. A closer examination of 2006 PISA results reveals that Anglophone New Brunswick placed ninth among Canadian provinces in the science sub-domain, seventh in reading, and sixth in the mathematics. In the 2006 science domain, Canada was out-performed by only Finland and Hong Kong- China. Although New Brunswick students would have been ranked at nineteenth overall (had they been compared to other countries); compared to the original 32 countries, Anglophone New Brunswick students would have ranked seventh in reading, eleventh in mathematics, and eighth in science. While I am not suggesting that these results are satisfactory, I think it is quite clear that our system is not "the worst".

A closer examination of the PISA test is warranted as well, as test results only have meaning if the test itself is meaningful. Based on the test items I have seen to date, the PISA assessments seem to be good quality. The OECD claims to "...measure skills that are generally recognized as key outcomes of the educational process", and that "the assessment focuses on young people's ability to use their knowledge and skills to meet real life challenges" (Statistics Canada - Catalogue no. 81-590 no. 3, p 9). The test items I have examined are challenging, and require students to think critically about their responses. For many years, the NBTA has been urging the Department to update our curricula to reflect the requirements of tomorrow's world. We cannot continue to sacrifice depth for breadth. Our students will not perform well on the PISA tests, or in life-long learning, unless teachers are permitted to challenge our students to think critically. Students must be permitted to study important ideas in greater depth in order to develop the skills to evaluate information and create knowledge, not just obtain it.

PISA 2009 is coming in late April/early May. A random sample of students from nearly all high schools in the province will be selected to write the international assessment. New Brunswick teachers will be encouraged to find ways to improve student performance.

In order to offer suggestions for improvement, please allow me to take you back to Pisa, Italy once again. Looking directly at the Tower was not a good idea - it made me dizzy. The lesson to be learned: focusing on the PISA test is not a good idea. Research has unequivocally demonstrated that teaching to the test does not work. In the short-term, to improve New Brunswick's performance on the 2009 assessment, we can offer our students a greater awareness of both the assessment itself and the importance of the results, but we must not focus on the test.

I encourage you to talk with your local high school PISA coordinator, and consider the following possible actions:

  • Take a few minutes to personally write a PISA practice test. (I found it to be a tremendous professional development activity!)
  • If you teach any 14 to 16-yearolds, talk to your students about the test - help them to understand what to expect.
  • Since PISA items focus on critical thinking, incorporate items like those found on the PISA tests in your own assessments.
  • Focus on the positive; dwelling on perceived poor historical performance will only engender poor performance in the future.
Although these are minor, shortterm interventions, they may help our student performance on PISA to better reflect the true quality of New Brunswick education

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